Travelling in India last month I was struck by the continuing interest in the UK. All, on the surface, appears to be going well in India. The economy under Narendra Modi has momentum, a contrast to our own. Modi has a 77% approval rating. There was a sense of optimism among the people I spoke to. And a concern for us, as for an old friend who’s not in the best of health. (Unless it’s cricket, where they acknowledge we lead the world at the moment.)
An Indian commentator (Swapan Dasgupta, writing in The Times of India) refers to a distinction made by Tony Blair between party activists and ordinary voters. With the UK and USA in mind Dasgupta continues: ‘It is largely the angry and dogmatic Right and Left who have the time and inclination for political activism. …. They can inspire the faithful but ordinary voters aren’t driven by doctrinaire concerns. The problem is that no-one can define what they want. Hence the appeal of identity politics as a fallback. Caught in the pincer movement of woke and the menacing xenophobic, liberal democracy should be worried about its own future.’
Applied to the UK, how did this work out?
The economic crisis and the years of austerity which followed brought to the fore deep divides in the UK. They were defined in various ways: north/south, city/country, as levels of education, ‘somewheres’ vs ‘anywheres’ in David Goodhart’s contentious formulation. The European Reform Group and Farage and sections of the media weaponised this divide. Notions of ‘Global Britain’ held back by the EU’s restraining hand gave a false economic credibility to the argument.
Janan Ganesh writing in the Financial Times has a useful take on the same subject. ‘People do not work out their beliefs and then join the corresponding tribe, they join a tribe and infer their beliefs from it. The sense of belonging, of group membership, is what hooks people…’
Come the 2019 election the group identities born of the Brexit ‘debate’ and the Brexit vote were firmly established.
Sebastian Payne’s Broken Heartlands (published 2020, revised 2021) focuses on the 2019 election. Interviews across the Red Wall (northern seats which switched to the Tories in 2019) with MPs, activists, business figures and a few old political warhorses attempt to explain why people voted as they did.
The explanation doesn’t lie in hyped-up fears over immigration – that was Brexit. It is, Payne concludes, twofold. Two personalities in fact. Johnson’s can-do enthusiasm, focused on get-Brexit-done and levelling up. And Jeremy Corbyn. That takes us back to 2010, when Ed Miliband diverted Labour’s focus away from the New Labour path and opened up the way for Corbyn’s disastrous election.
Payne’s new-Tory-MP interviewees, with their big plans for their constituencies, have reason to feel embarrassed. They’ve been relying on the magic money tree, which the last sane chancellor, Philip Hammond, had kept well-locked away in a cupboard. They’ve also been mesmerised by Johnson.
Where do we go from here? All sides of the argument are focusing on the regions. Andy Burnham, Andy Street and Ben Houchen, mayors of Manchester, Birmingham and Tees Valley, are cited as examples of what can be achieved at a regional level. We’ve also had Gordon Brown’s recent report on the regions for Labour, with its big ideas, not least an assembly of the regions replacing the House of Lords.
The polls suggest people are looking to Labour for answers – but primarily for want of alternatives. They are not convinced. Sebastian Payne approves a simple formulation, arising out of a conversation with Neil Kinnock. If Labour could ‘manifest itself as the “security” party, in terms of personal security, employment, education, enterprise, national security… it would be capable of getting over the identity demarcations that produced the referendum result’.
High-flying sentiments but the emphasis is wrong. Enterprise would be a better starting-point than security – enterprise supported by education, and enterprise put in the service of transforming social care and health care more widely. Business entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, and government agencies, working side by side.
Payne quotes a striking statistic: ‘just 17 per cent of over sixty-fives voted Labour in 2019…’ Security might be a watchword for the over 65s but it is surely more important to get young people engaged, and young people voting.
Politics needs to be about challenge, even exciting. (A big ask, given where we are at the moment.) It is extraordinary how the younger generations have been left out of current arguments and deliberations. If we’re to break out of our small ‘c’ conservative mindset and take on the future they have to be put centre stage. They deserve their own ‘triple lock’.